Commodity Fetishes and the Cultural Adaptive Rate

August 13th, 2012
in Op Ed

by Roger Erickson, Mike Norman Economics

Matt Frank has asked me:

"Have you ever come across behavior in any other primate species (other than certain humans of course) that is equivalent to what Marx termed from the secular point of view 'commodity fetishism?' "

Yes and yes.

Short answer:

crow-and-shiny-object-150-x-214That's essentially what Adaptive Rate is all about. We've learned to be very conservative about moving on to new habits only after exhaustively testing them for unpredictable failures.  Our deepest goal is to change as fast as is safely possible, but no faster.  Fact is that we need both conservatives and liberals, plus everything in between.  We should always let liberals slowly scale up "free innovation zones," and we should always have our conservative base carefully selecting from all the liberal innovations - the sooner the better for both. The two should acknowledge one another and work in patient symbiosis - not at cross purposes.  There is no point of stability in the world that is not a dynamic equilibrium between multiple, continuous spectra of conflicting forces.  The brilliant thing about dynamic equilibria is that they are nearly invulnerable because all the conflicting forces are so strongly buffered.  Nearly ANY sling or arrow of outrageous fortune will be absorbed and only cause them to adapt - where a simple, rigid system would shatter and be utterly destroyed.

Follow up:

Long answer:

Initially, yes - species, from crows to rats to crustaceans hoard away shiny things, from glass beads to bottle caps and jewelry.  The proposed explanations for the large number of species-specific observations vary from the ridiculous to the sublime. Best for readers to google the topic themselves.

Even further yes - if you consider any given metabolite or even a cultural "transition-state" as itself a commodity.

Once seen that way, every step in learned molecular, biochemical & cultural aggregates has passed a given stage of associative learning, by trial & error accumulation of positive feedback reactions that reinforce the "initially recognized" and then "expected" path to a worthwhile return. Expectation is simply a statistical threshold when plotting the ratio of positive/negative feedback loops.  Think of all the variations of Pavlov's dog, then scale that up to Pavlov's culture.  Both a dog and a nation are cultures, one is a culture of cells, the other a culture of humans.

However, none of these learned associations in any type of culture have ever satisfied all of these three conditions simultaneously:

1) guarantee 100% association in any given context;
2) guarantee continued association across changing contexts;
3) guarantee optimal return in any or all contexts.


Humans went from the Stone Age to the Copper Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age to the Age of Reason .. and on to that subtle transition from the Gold-Standard Age to the dynamically scalable Public Initiative Age. A more interesting question is why it took us this long to make those transitions. We prolonged a fetish to each set of conditioned habits, before repeatedly moving on, [eventually] ... each time moving on to briefly adopt a new fetish for a new association while we are learning it!

There isn't any known example of associative learning that can be proven to be the last. There are ALWAYS more options to explore and lessons to learn.

It's the speed of transitioning - between the old and the newly discovered, optional associations that counts. That's what we call "adaptive rate."

We're in the middle of an adaptive-rate race. We've estimated it's been continuing on Earth alone for at least 3.5 billion years ... and will continue for an essentially unlimited time (as far as we know). The only thing we can count on is continued change .. and our ability to adapt to it (faster than others).

How quickly we explore our expanding "Options Space" is what will either keep humans at the forefront of evolution on Earth - and the USA in the forefront of that forefront - or relegate humans to just another species that a better one will stand upon and advance beyond the human frontier.  In the process, will we relegate the USA to being a nation of neoLiberal Luddites that more advanced cultures will stand upon?  Or do we want to continue leading that race?

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About the Author

Roger Erickson is a systems entrepreneur based in Maryland. He worked for years in neurophysiology system research, at the Humboldt Stiftung, MIT, Yale, and NIMH before becoming more interested in community, business and market systems. Roger's newest interests are being pursued through several startups, as well as pilot agriculture commercialization projects with the USDA.

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1 comment

  1. jim valensi says :

    "it's not rocket science, it's smoke and mirrors" This quote covers it all. These problems are solvable but we're being lied to.



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